If Critical Reflection Were a Craft, What Would It Look Like?

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In a NY Times interview, sculptor Jack Russell (then director of the Brookfield Craft Center) differentiates craftspeople as those with “a reverence for the materials” as well as
for the techniques and processes used to create a work. ” My touchstone is
that if an object shows respect for both the reality and the spirituality of
the material and the process involved in making it, it’s craft,” he says.

When we discuss writing as a craft, the materials under discussion are words–our own and those of treasured texts, as well as (though perhaps not as much as before) the mark-making instruments we employ.

It seems to me that an arts-integrated writing curriculum would need to pay close attention to our material heritage as writers as well as to the intersections of wordcraft and other art forms. For example, an exploration of illuminated manuscripts seems appropriate, particularly if the curriculum were to extend beyond a single art-experience-as-heuristic sort of writing course and into a multi-course experience that delved deeply into the mutually informing practices and principles of creative genres.

For now, though, I’m trying to wrap my brain around a visual art/writing intersection that I’ll continue to explore with my students this fall: critical reflection. In aesthetic education this is sometimes called mindfulness or it might be bundled with other ways of thinking carefully and critically and repeatedly regarding a subject or object. I’ll continue to call it critical reflection.

In a teaching practice that attempts to make composing processes tangible and visible, the journal or sketchbook is the established way to generate artifacts of critical reflection.

But this can get tricky. On the one hand, we know that reflective writing during the creative process helps students achieve reflection-in-action (Yancey; Schon). On the other hand, art experiences are also intended to give students an experience of the oft-cited “flow”–which by definition is an uninterrupted experience of total involvement in the creative process (Csikszentmihalyi). Kristie Fleckenstein discusses this aim in terms of Ann Berthoff’s “allatonceness” of meaning-making (69). So how do we get this timing right? Yancey has described reflection-in-action as something that can occur after the original text is done, as a kind of dialogue with the recently composed text, especially if it is intended to undergo further revision. In that regard, flow and reflection can be asynchronous. But what if I want my students to experience flow during critical reflection or as critical reflection?

Is it possible that the reflective journal or sketchbook could be the place where craftspersonlike “reverence” is recorded?

Or is that going too far?

Perhaps the goal of the first-semester college writing course should be a sensitivity to and respect for the raw materials of writing–learning their lore as well as how to handle them, preserve them, experiment with them, and how others have done so.

Here’s the question that intrigues me most: in this “guild” of reflective writing, who are our masters and what are their artifacts? Yancey’s Reflection in the Writing Classroom is the most obvious example. She both demonstrates and explains the craft of critical reflection. Then we might look at reflective sketchbooks like these done by art students. But who else and what else and in what other genres?

A few works come to mind, such as Sarah Oblinger‘s altered book, Making What You Say TrueGuy Maddin’s documentary My Winnipeg; Joanne Leonard’s photo memoir Being In Pictures.

Assuming we come up with some relatively objective criteria for identifying works as well-crafted artifacts of critical reflection, how might we examine those other genres and their processes and materials in order to enrich our understanding of critically reflective writing?

Image source: “Awl’s well . . .” by Mr. Greenjeans

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